Saturday, October 13, 2007

Books that Deal with The Other

I've recently read three books that deal with being an outsider, or a person of a specific group, such as Jews, who are placed in an environment where they must deal with prejudice and stereotypes and the usual ignorant, cruel people who can't get past them being different.
The first book was a re-read, because I'd read it several years ago when I was on a Elinor Lipman spree; that dear author was one of my mentors in graduate school, and I like to think I have her to thank for not becoming a novelist. She insisted that I stick to non fictional prose, because she felt my storytelling abilities were best used describing the characters I'd grown up with and come into contact with in my life. I was bidden to read "The Inn At Lake Devine" again by my Tuesday night library book group. I'd forgotten how deliciously funny Lipman can be, how zingy her dialog is, and how zesty her plots. This particular novel is about a young woman who fights, in her own unique style, the anti-semitism of a WASP-y summer vacation hotel owner who sends her family a letter saying that only gentiles are welcome at their resort. Natalie, the main character, finagles her way into staying at the resort, and eventually falls in love with one of the sons of the owner, in an ironic little twist of fate that plays out in a realistic manner. Mrs Berry, the Inn owner and anti-semitic witch, remains resolute in her view of Jews, even when confronted by Natalie and the daughter of a Catskills resort owner. It is only when her son and Natalie almost die of an inadvertant poisoning that Berry realizes that she can't continue to run an Inn with such a prejudicial attitude. A person of the Jewish faith ends up buying her resort, in another twist that will leave the reader smiling.
"Chasing Cezanne" by Peter Mayle, is another tale of a fish out of water, this time a half-Irish half-French photographer living in NewYork who finds himself thrown into the world of fine French art. (And yes, its the same Peter Mayle who wrote the sublime "A Year in Provence") There's enough skulduggery and intrigue in the novel to keep the casual Francophile interested, and enough romance to keep the average woman reading through to the end. What intrigued me was the twisted and intricate way that the art thieves in this novel managed to replace masterpieces with fakes, and get away with it. There was also insight into the world of "Editor Divas" of big name magazines and how ruthlessly they operate. I liked Mayles clean and masculine prose, and also enjoyed his usual adoration of all things French, especially the food, which is incomparable, of course. His food descriptions could make even the most stringent dieter salavate for truffles and cheeses and fresh bagettes. My only qualm with the book was the ending. It was another one of those last chapters that just fades to black with no real resolution. We don't know if the good guys got away and managed to make things right, or if the bad guys ever got what was coming to them, and ended up in jail courtesy of interpol. Other than that, it was an interesting book,and certainly will have me seeking out other works by Mr Mayle.
"Because of Winn-Dixie" by Katie DiCamilla is a wonderful, sunshiney handful of a book that I was assigned for book group and that I found myself reading to my son Nick. It's a delightful tale of a little girl named Opal who moves to Naomi, Florida with her daddy the preacher and finds friends in a stray dog named Winn-Dixie, for the grocery store he nearly destroyed, and a host of other small-town eccentrics, from the little girl who sucks her knuckles to the town "witch" who is really just a blind old lady with a ready spoonful of peanut butter for friendly dogs and little girls. This book is destined to be a classic in the same vein as "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." You can't read a book this good without developing a bit of a Southern drawl and a speech pattern that meanders along like a lazy summer afternoon. Though Opal and Winn-Dixie are different and outsiders, they have a mature and open-hearted outlook on the world, and the reader can't help but pull for the two of them. Funny, poignient and sweet, I recommend this book for anyone who says that todays' kids are too cynical and tech-oriented to enjoy a good story. Good tales like this never run out of style, and I hope they never will.

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